Long shot lawyer: Defending migrants in US’s toughest immigration court

Why We Wrote This

Few lawyers choose to represent migrants at Stewart Detention Center, which rejects more than 90% of applicants. Marty Rosenbluth has made defending those who may have a right to stay his lifework. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Immigration attorney Marty Rosenbluth Skypes with a client at the Stewart Detention Center from his home office on March 5 in Lumpkin, Georgia. Though the detention center is only one mile down the road, sometimes Skype is the easiest way to meet his clients.

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Lawyers are scarce at Stewart Immigration Court in Lumpkin, Georgia, one of 64 federal courts tasked with deciding the fate of migrants. Among immigration courts, this may be the toughest of all. That deters many from taking cases here. But not Marty Rosenbluth. He moved to Lumpkin two years ago to defend people who may have a legal right to stay in the U.S. His clients include recent migrants as well as men who have lived in the country for years or decades, fathering children and putting down roots. 

When he first visited the center in 2010, Mr. Rosenbluth says he was “scared witless because it’s so intimidating.” He lost virtually all his cases at Stewart the next six years while traveling back and forth from North Carolina. But he persisted and is now the only private attorney in Lumpkin.

Even with a strong case and the right judge, he knows that his client is likely to be deported, triggering a nagging moral question: Is he stopping systemic injustices or just greasing the wheels of the deportation industry? It’s an uphill battle, but he takes solace in making a difference where he can. “Here I make a difference on a daily basis, and I can see it.” 

A hazy sun rises over pine-covered hills as Marty Rosenbluth pulls out of his driveway and hangs a left on Main Street. Outside town the two-lane road dips, then climbs before Mr. Rosenbluth slows to take the right-hand turnoff to Stewart Detention Center, a privately run prison for men who face deportation from the United States. 

This is where Mr. Rosenbluth, a lawyer, can be found most days, either visiting clients inside the country’s largest immigration detention center or representing them before a judge in an adjacent courtroom. It’s a mile outside Lumpkin, a forlorn county seat that most days has fewer inhabitants than the prison, which has 2,000 beds.

Mr. Rosenbluth parks his red Toyota Prius in the lot and walks to the entrance. He waits at the first of two sliding doors set in 12-foot-high fences topped with coils of razor wire. The first time he came, the grind and clang of the metal doors unnerved him. Now he doesn’t notice, like the office worker who tunes out the elevator’s ping. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, has beds for 2,000 migrants.

Passing the gates, Mr. Rosenbluth enters the court annex and stoops to remove his black shoes for the metal detector. He shows Alondra Torres, his young Puerto Rican assistant who’s on her first day of work, where to sign in and introduces her to the uniformed security guard standing by the detector. 

Mr. Rosenbluth, who has a shaved head, black-framed glasses, and a two-inch gray goatee, smiles and spreads his hands. “I’ve never had a paralegal before,” he proudly tells the guard. 

Lawyers are in short supply on the ground at Stewart Immigration Court, one of 64 federal courts tasked with deciding the fate of migrants who the U.S. government seeks to send home. The prison is more than two hours from Atlanta, and lawyers often wait hours to see clients and are allowed to bring only notebooks and pens into visitation rooms. 

Lawyers who work with these handicaps face longer odds. On average, detained migrants are far less likely to win asylum than those on the outside, in part because it’s much harder to prepare and fight a case from behind bars. Still, of all immigration courts, this may be the toughest of all. “The reputation of Stewart among attorneys is that you will lose,” says Mr. Rosenbluth. 

That deters many from taking cases here. But not Mr. Rosenbluth. He moved to Lumpkin two years ago in order to defend people who may have a legal right to stay in the U.S. His clients include recent migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border, whose continued arrival has become a lightning rod for critics of U.S. asylum law and border security. But the majority of his cases involve men who have lived in the country for years or decades, fathering children and putting down roots. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Lawyer Marty Rosenbluth works with paralegal Alondra Torres on immigration cases in his home office.

For detainees, having an attorney in immigration court makes a big difference. A 2015 study found that detained immigrants who had legal counsel prevailed in 21% of cases. For those who represented themselves, the success rate was just 2%. Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants have no right to a public defender. 

Mr. Rosenbluth, who works for a law firm in Durham, North Carolina, is the only private attorney in Lumpkin. He’s never advertised his services, but word gets around; detainees will pass him notes during prison meetings. Then he consults with his boss on whether to pursue a case. 

“If a case has no chance of winning, we just don’t take it,” he says.

But it’s not just about the strength of an individual’s asylum case or bond request. It’s also about who will hear it: Will it be a judge who has denied scores of other similar motions? Or will it be a judge who might, just might, set a bond that a family can afford so their father or son can go home? 

“Your judge is your destiny,” says Monica Whatley, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Even when Mr. Rosenbluth thinks he has a strong case and the right judge, he knows that his client is more likely than not to be deported – and that an immigration judge in New York or Los Angeles may well have ruled in his favor. It’s usually then that he circles back to a nagging moral question: Is he stopping systemic injustices or just greasing the wheels of the deportation industry? 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Lawyer Marty Rosenbluth, the only private immigration lawyer in town, stands in his home office.

Human rights crusader 

Mr. Rosenbluth’s route to becoming a champion of immigrants’ rights was circuitous. In 1979 he dropped out of college to become a union organizer. A few years later, in 1985, he moved to the West Bank to work with Palestinian trade unions on conditions in Israel. His original plan was to stay three months, then go back to the United Auto Workers. He ended up staying seven years. 

Back in the U.S., he worked for Amnesty International on Israeli and Palestinian issues as a researcher and spokesman. The job required Mr. Rosenbluth, who is soft spoken and a natural introvert, to speak publicly about one of the world’s most exhaustively debated conflicts. But he learned how to talk to a crowd and to prepare for tough questions. 

Having worked for decades on labor issues and international human rights, law school seemed a good fit. By then Mr. Rosenbluth was in his late 40s. He had moved to North Carolina, which was emerging as a testing ground for stricter enforcement of immigration law and deportation procedures. 

“I’m still working on human rights, just from a different angle,” he says. “And these are human rights violations that my government is committing right here at home.” 

Counties in North Carolina were early adopters of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program that trained local law enforcement officers to locate and turn over unauthorized immigrants. The program predated President Barack Obama, but his administration supported its expansion as a way to target criminals for deportation. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Marty Rosenbluth talks to Nicaraguan Rodney Montoya Calero, a detainee at the Stewart Detention Center. Mr. Rosenbluth often Skypes with clients.

After graduation, Mr. Rosenbluth found work as an immigration lawyer for nonprofits in North Carolina that were inundated with calls from families seeking the release of detained members. Most had no convictions for felonies or violent crimes. Still, the Obama administration insisted that it was deporting criminals and ensuring public safety. 

It was maddening, but it could also be useful: Lawyers would challenge deportations in court as contrary to the administration’s policy of going after only serious criminals. “We could use their own propaganda against them to try to get our clients released,” says Mr. Rosenbluth. 

He started hearing about Stewart, a remote facility in Georgia that was housing detainees from across the region. Built as a private prison but never used, it reopened in 2006 as a detention center contracted to ICE. Judges in Atlanta ruled on deportations via video link before the Department of Justice opened a court inside the prison complex in 2010. 

That same year Mr. Rosenbluth made his first trip to Stewart. “I was scared witless because it’s so intimidating,” he says. It wasn’t just the metal gates, prison garb, and taciturn guards. He couldn’t confer with his client before the hearing; even a handshake wasn’t allowed. 

Mr. Rosenbluth lost his first case. He would lose virtually all his cases at Stewart the next six years while traveling back and forth from North Carolina and staying in the nearest hotel, 36 miles away. He hit on the idea of opening a nonprofit law firm in Lumpkin to provide free counsel to as many detainees as possible. He even had an acronym: GUTS, for gum up the system.

When he pitched the idea to national liberal donors, they blanched. It wasn’t the right time to gum up the system, he was told. Mr. Obama was working on comprehensive immigration reform. The president needed to hang tough on removals of
unauthorized immigrants. There were “Dreamers” to protect. 

Yeah, thought Mr. Rosenbluth. And their parents are being locked up and deported every day. 

Courtroom coups

It’s 8 in the morning when the court rises for Judge Randall Duncan. As he settles into his black wingback chair, three rows of Latino men in prison jumpsuits stare back from wooden benches. One of them is Hugo Gordillo Mendez, a Mexican living in Goldsboro, North Carolina, who was detained in January after neighbors called the police to report an incident at his house. His wife, Diana Gordillo, a U.S. citizen, sits next to Mr. Rosenbluth. The previous day she drove nine hours to attend today’s bail hearing, and she’s hoping Mr. Rosenbluth can persuade the judge to release Mr. Gordillo on a bond.  

Ms. Gordillo locks eyes for a minute with her husband. He stares at his feet. 

Getting out on bail or a bond is a big deal. Lawyers advise clients to do everything possible to secure their release, preferably with a U.S. citizen and family member as sponsor, so they can go back to their community and fight their deportation there instead of at Stewart. “When people get out of Stewart, they get as far away from there as they can,” says Sarah Owings, an immigration lawyer in Atlanta. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

Moving to another jurisdiction is no guarantee of success, of course. But the chances improve significantly. Between 2013 and 2018, some 58% of asylum claims in U.S. immigration courts were denied, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Over the same period, the denial rate at Lumpkin was 94%. Take Judge Duncan: Of 207 asylum cases that he heard in those five years, only 12 were granted. (Others may have won on appeal.) Denials of bond requests are high at Lumpkin too. 

Mr. Gordillo’s case begins with an ICE lawyer citing the immigrant’s status and his arrest for assault as reasons not to release him. “The respondent has not shown that he’s not a danger,” he says. 

Mr. Rosenbluth points out that the assault charge was dismissed and that Mr. Gordillo supports his wife and two U.S.-born children, one of whom has a severe medical condition. “His wife, Diana, is in court today,” he says, gesturing at her. She suffers anxiety and has bipolar disorder, he adds. And she will be filing a petition for Mr. Gordillo to become a legal U.S. resident. 

“I think that we have a very strong, very viable” case against deportation, he says. “We ask that a reasonable bond be set.” 

Judge Duncan takes a few minutes to decide, but as he sums up the family’s medical hardship, he’s already scribbling on a document. “Bond is set at $5,000,” he says. 

Mr. Rosenbluth ushers Ms. Gordillo out of the courtroom and explains how she can pay the bond; she has already raised $4,300, and her father will loan her the rest. “He’ll be out today,” Mr. Rosenbluth says, his lawyerly demeanor giving way to giddiness.  

Had he lost, Mr. Gordillo could have appealed the ruling and contested his removal to Mexico. But that might take months, and the longer his clients are locked up, the more likely they are to accept deportation as a way out. 

“There’s no question that ICE uses incarceration as a litigation strategy. They know people will give up,” he says. 

 Judges under pressure

While immigration judges are civil servants who are supposed to apply federal law, studies have found wide variations among judges and between courts in how they handle cases. Being assigned to a judge in Lumpkin or Los Angeles is a distinction with a difference – and for defendants who fear persecution in their home country, it’s a distinction with life-threatening consequences. 

Some experts blame the Department of Justice for failing to adequately train and equip judges to handle complex immigration cases. “I think it’s a question of resources,” says Jaya Ramji-Nogales, an assistant professor of law at Temple University and co-author of a study of asylum adjudication called “Refugee Roulette.” “The political will is about building border walls.” 

As the backlog of immigration cases has grown, so has pressure on judges to speed through dockets. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions drew criticism last year for faulting judges who failed to clear 700 cases in a year. Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges (NAIJ), has called the push to have understaffed courts investigate complex claims the equivalent of “doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”  

Ms. Ramji-Nogales found wide variations in asylum claim rulings filed in different courts. Women judges were on average more likely than men to grant asylum, and judges who joined the bench after careers as federal immigration prosecutors were more likely to deny claims. 

Judges who see only detainees in their courtrooms develop a thick skin, says Paul Schmidt, a retired judge. “If all you’re doing is detained [cases], you get the preconception that all these cases are losers,” he says. “If you get in a denial mode, it gets harder for judges to see the other side.” 

Mr. Schmidt, a former chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals, spent 13 years as an immigration judge in Arlington, Virginia. He says the judges who go to work in these courts “probably assume that it’ll be mostly denials, and that’s fine with them.” This also serves the political agenda in Washington, says Mr. Schmidt. “People who are known for moving lots of cases for final removal are classified as productive. And there’s a lot of pressure for moving cases.” 

Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge in Los Angeles and current president of NAIJ, agrees that courts need more resources. But she pushes back against comparisons of harsh versus lenient judges and says there is no “right number” of denials. “Each case is decided on its merits,” she says.

For most of the men in Judge Duncan’s court this morning, this is their first appearance. After he hears another bond motion – “denied” – he asks the 13 remaining detainees to rise and raise their right hands to affirm they understand their legal status. “Sí,” the men mutter. Speaking via a Spanish interpreter, Judge Duncan explains that they have the right to contest their deportation and to appeal any rulings.

Respondents also have the right to hire an attorney, Judge Duncan says. “How many of you have an attorney?” he asks. Two men raise their hands and are given more time to prepare. The others are called up to the bench. The judge rules all will be deported. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Empty storefronts and struggling businesses line the center of Lumpkin, a town of 1,100 people in southwestern Georgia. The Stewart Detention Center is the main employer in the area.

Lumpkin’s lone lawyer

After Mr. Rosenbluth took the job here, he bought a house in town for $20,000. He invites visiting lawyers to rent out his second bedroom and share his home office so they can represent clients at Stewart. But a trickle of defenders has not become a flood. Some days Mr. Rosenbluth is the only lawyer in court. 

Attorneys who travel to Stewart grow weary of prison lockdowns, talking to clients through plexiglass windows, and dealing with pettifogging guards. “It’s meant to grind you down,” says Ms. Owings, who has defended several detainees at Stewart.   

To save time, most lawyers skip client visits and phone into court hearings in Lumpkin. Mr. Rosenbluth never does this. “I consider it to be borderline malpractice,” he says. 

At first guards in Lumpkin would stop Mr. Rosenbluth from shaking his clients’ hands or patting their shoulders. Not in here, they’d scold him; it’s not allowed. Mr. Rosenbluth, who is Jewish, persisted, politely, in a way that was more rabbinical than righteous. Eventually he wore down the guards one by one, and now he embraces his clients, a human touch denied in prison. 

When he loses his cases, as he often does, Mr. Rosenbluth comforts the detainee, walks out of the prison, and drives his Prius the mile back home. “Then I’ll scream at the walls,” he says. 

As a one-man act, Mr. Rosenbluth can juggle only a dozen or so individual cases at Stewart at a time, knowing that most will end in deportation. Far from gumming up the system, he admits he may be just helping put a veneer of due process on mass expulsions.

Still, he takes solace in making a difference where he can. “You bang your head against a wall” trying to stop Israel from torturing Palestinian suspects, and nothing changes, he says. “Here I make a difference on a daily basis, and I can see it.” 

That difference could be amplified as his firm, Polanco Law, is looking to add two more lawyers in Lumpkin this year. Mr. Rosenbluth has begun scoping out empty storefronts for an office. A nearby house has also opened its doors to provide free accommodations for family members visiting detainees. 

Having a shingle in town would expand Mr. Rosenbluth’s practice – and perhaps send a message that detainees have a shot at success.

‘This is the best’ 

Mr. Rosenbluth is making coffee when he gets the call. Abdallh Khadra, a Syrian imam whose political asylum was granted a week ago, is getting out after five months inside. The lawyer jumps in his car and heads to Stewart, a broad smile splitting his beard. He always makes sure to be at the prison gate when his clients are released. “It never gets old,” he says. “This is the best.”

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Marty Rosenbluth (r.) poses with Abdallh Khadra, a Syrian national just released from Stewart Detention Center. Mr. Rosenbluth likes to greet his clients when they are let out, a moment he calls ‘the best.’

On the drive his phone rings again, and this time it’s Mr. Khadra himself. “We’re coming to get you now,” Mr. Rosenbluth tells him. He’s brought Mr. Khadra’s driver’s license and credit card so that he can drive himself back to Cary, North Carolina.

But the head of Mr. Khadra’s mosque calls Mr. Rosenbluth, insisting that he take a bus to Atlanta so that he can be picked up from there. Mr. Rosenbluth shrugs. “I will do what my client wants,” he says after he hangs up.  

Most men discharged from Stewart don’t get choices. Those without family or friends waiting outside are shunted into a white van and dumped at a bus station in Columbus, usually at night after the last bus to Atlanta has already left. Local volunteers provide backpacks and blankets and a bed for the night. 

Mr. Khadra is more fortunate: The sun is still high when the prison’s side gates grind open and he walks out wearing a gray tunic and black pants, carrying two plastic bags. Mr. Rosenbluth is waiting by a picnic table. 

He strides forward to greet his client. The two men, Muslim and Jew, hug and exchange Arabic greetings. “God is merciful. May God bless you.” 

Then Mr. Khadra steps forward and falls to his knees on a concrete utility cover. He drops his head and begins to pray. 

As he drives home afterward, Mr. Rosenbluth cues up a song on his iPhone that he plays after every release. It’s “Freedom” by Richie Havens. 

A long

Way

From my home, yeah.

From my home, yeah.

Yeah.

Sing.

Fr-e-e-dom.

Fr-e-e-dom. 

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